Why we should all stop writing about Harvard

Many reports of higher ed in the media don't accurately reflect most students' college experience

A media obsession with elite institutions like Harvard University obscures the reality of college life for the majority of students in the country, Ben Casselman writes for FiveThirtyEight.

"It's college admissions season, which means it's time once again for the annual flood of stories that badly misrepresent what higher education looks like for most American students—and skew the public debate over everything from student debt to the purpose of college in the process," Casselman writes.

He attributes the false narratives in part to the abundance of reporters at major national media outlets who attended highly selective private institutions or top public research universities.

Hollywood also shares the blame, Casselman argues, with movies about colleges often depicting an atypical experience. Casselman points to the animated film "Monsters University," which, even though set in a fictional universe, used schools such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of California, Berkeley to illustrate a model campus.

"That myopia has real consequences for education policy," Casselman warns.

While newspapers tend to focus on provocative stories such as campus romantic life, the rise in political correctness, and luxurious on-campus amenities, issues that affect a greater share of students get pushed aside. Casselman notes a lack of coverage on increasingly harsh state cuts to higher education funding, a topic with no relevance to private universities. Top-tier public universities also have less of a stake in the matter, with outside means of funding such as alumni donations, research grants, and patent revenue. 

Casselman argues that media outlets have also failed to address the barriers to graduating from college and focus too much on admission.

Graduation rates improve—but not for all students

Even student debt, which an issue that affects numerous students, is covered from a misleading perspective, Casselman says. There is no lack of articles highlighting student debt reaching six figures, but those stories often involve students who went to graduate school and will likely have a strong return on their educational investment. Those stories don't account for students struggling to pay off smaller balances for degrees that did not help them get jobs, or those who never attained a degree in the first place.

"The biggest issue is that people can't afford to spend enough time in college to actually finish their darn degrees," says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor and education-policy expert at the University of Wisconsin.

Three reasons non-traditional student success is more important than ever before

According to Goldrick-Rab, journalists often don't consider how unstable a college education may be for many students who have other responsibilities competing with their education. They are taking on multiple jobs, supporting their families, and attending school part-time, which extends their graduation time and reduces the likelihood that they will even graduate at all. And they're accruing significant debt while doing it.

Casselman hopes publications will shift from an emphasis on stories of less substance to those that really matter to most students, such as accommodating working students, helping students keep their credits when transferring schools, and making college affordable for students at regional public universities and community colleges (Casselman, FiveThirtyEight, 3/30).

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